Has anybody mentioned that here in Belize, we actually jump in the water surrounded by sharks and rays? It’s an amazing experience to spend time with these creatures and collect data from such a short distance away.
The location for our surveys is a beautiful spot called Shark & Ray Alley, just a short boat ride from Caye Caulker. From the minute we arrive, a big group of nurse sharks will approach the boat, attracted by the sound of our engine. A few Southern stingrays will swim by our side as well, curious and excited to see what’s happening. Our volunteers then jump in the water equipped with their snorkeling gear and a slate to write down their observations.
It’s a pretty unique experience to float around ‘shark infested waters’. For those of you who may have watched too many scary movies about this family of fish, let me tell you, nurse sharks don't even bite when they eat. Instead, they absorb their prey using a difference of pressure, making a funny noise that most attentive surveyors can note.
So why are we doing these surveys? Most local tourist boats will arrange some sardines to guarantee excited shark and ray company, and now the site gets very crowded with animals expecting to be fed. Consequently, Frontier pays special attention to the behavior of the shark and ray population in this area, to see how they respond to the presence of boats, and to ensure that no type of tourism is detrimental to the health of these creatures.
Our surveyors spend one hour in the warm crystal-clear waters, observing and taking notes on their slate. Traveling, feeding, being slightly aggressive, or resting, are some of the main behaviors we have to monitor. Those behaviors are noted according to boat traffic rankings and the amount of unnatural feeding the creatures receive.
In the upcoming months, we are planning to create an ID catalogue of our local sharks and rays. Our surveyors will be taking photos of each individual while remarking on their peculiarities. The final outcome should function like a Facebook profile for each shark and ray, allowing us to assess our local population in more detail and getting to know them even better.
Thanks to our research assistants’ hard work, we have compiled a good amount of data each month, to ensure that our study is reliable. Each day we carefully input all the observations in data books and the computer, and every 3 months, the Principal Investigator analyses all the results and processes them. Ultimately, this data will feed into our quarterly science reports, which are then officially published. How exciting is that?
By performing shark and ray surveys, we continue to learn about the local fauna every day. Discovering their diet preferences and behaviors allows a comparison between tourist boat areas and other less disturbed locations. Not only is this work a lot of fun, but the research we do is a valuable part of conservation efforts at Caye Caulker Marine Reserve.
Would anybody like to join us?